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Destigmatising being a victim of Intimate Partner Violence

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault and abuse

Being a victim of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has commonly been associated with shame and weakness. Although we’re seeing more people speak out about this issue, there is still a long way to go, especially in a country like South Africa, which is ridden with poverty, inequality and femicide. The first step to bringing about this change where victims are not afraid to speak up, is dissociating the word ‘victim’ with negativity.

What is IPV and how does it affect the victim?

The 2011 Social Issue Report defines IPV, also known as domestic violence, as “a wilful single occurrence or a pattern of abusive behaviour employing coercion, threat, intimidation, isolation, power or fear that results in physical, psychological or emotional trauma”. IPV behaviours include physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression. This abusive behaviour applies to both current and former spouses or partners.

IPV is a term less spoken of although very common, especially in South Africa. People are more familiar with the term Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Saferspaces defines GBV as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between […] genders, within the context of a specific society”. IPV is therefore a form of GBV, which applies to people in sexual or romantic relationships.

Although IPV affects both men and women, women are most affected by it. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that “globally, an estimated 736 million women- almost one in three- have been subjected to IPV, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life”.

IPV affects victims in various ways. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , the most common health consequences of IPV are “a range of conditions affecting the heart, digestive, reproduction, muscle and bones, and nervous systems, many of which are chronic”. Furthermore, survivors may experience mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, in addition to sustained physical injuries. They are also at a higher risk of engaging in behaviours like smoking, binge drinking, and sexually risky behaviours.

What is the societal stigma attached to being an IPV victim?

Even in today’s times, women are reluctant to speak out about the domestic abuse they suffer, due to discouraging societal norms. Victims are intimidated by the shame attached to being a victim, and by potential retaliation from their abuser, family and community. This is because communities often ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women, which makes it difficult for them to be believed if they speak up. This is fuelled by the ideology that the man is the head of the house; what he says goes. The common misconception around victims, especially in certain cultures, is that they are to blame for provoking their attacker (be it a stranger or a partner). They don’t show their partner respect, they are too friendly with other men, they come home a minute late and so on, hence deserve to be beaten up. The attacker is always justified in resorting to abuse, and this leads to the victim internalising being to blame for being abused. Because the manipulation runs deep and the misconceptions speak volumes, they are of the mindset that should they speak up, they are unlikely to be believed. This misconception makes victims suffer in silence for longer than they should while believing that they won’t be believed nor receive justice should they speak up.  

Despite the common belief, experiencing something as traumatic as IPV is not a choice. When a person enters a romantic relationship with someone else, the last thing they expect is that they will become that person’s punching bag, be manipulated or have their self-esteem broken down.  We all go into romantic relationships with the hopes of finding love and companionship. People who have experienced IPV once had that same optimism. Victims need to know they are deserving of peace, safety and healthy relationships, regardless of how they have been treated in the past. We all have a role to play in helping them come to this realisation, by supporting victims and breaking the stigma around IPV.

How can we help break the stigma?

We should start conversations about what a healthy relationship looks like. People don’t realise that agency exists within relationships and your partner is entitled to the same respect you are entitled to. You are not entitled to your partner’s body just because you’re together. We should also educate people about IPV, how to spot the signs and how to step back from a potentially harmful situation.

We should do more to raise awareness of IPV. In South Africa, platforms like radio stations would be most ideal for this objective, because they have a great audience reach, going as far as remote areas like villages. Television is also a great platform for this. There are already TV programs such as Orange Couch, where victim/survivors share their stories. More programmes centred around IPV should be introduced.

We should create dialogue about IPV in our social circles and communities. For more traditional communities, members could gather like they usually do for general community meetings and discuss the issue at hand and educate each other about it. For communities involved in the digital sphere, dialogues could be created online. When engaging in these dialogues, we ought to be respectful and openminded, and create a safe space that will encourage victims to speak up without fear of judgement and shame. We need to call each other out if respect is not being observed and when people are behaving like hypocrites; they engage positively in conversations but become judgemental in response to victims speaking out.

Last, but certainly not least, we should empower victims. Empowerment is important because it allows the victim to take back the power they’ve been denied by their abuser. The Social Issue Report explains that empowering would entail spreading knowledge, training, and counselling to create a set of services that victims control, such as post-victimization assistance and risk minimization. These are services offered to victims to build them up and help them deal with their experience and trauma in healthy and safe ways, and to help them move past seeing themselves as mere victims. They are also taught to spot potentially toxic situations so that they do not end up in the same place again. If they don’t get the proper help, it is easy for them to fall into the continuous cycle of being a victim. When knowledge and resources are accessible to victims in a safe and sustainable manner, they become agents of their own change.

We should also support the numerous organisations that help empower victims, such as Akonaho Victim Empowerment Programme in Limpopo, Grace Help Centre in North-West, Embrace Dignity in Western Cape, and many more. An extensive list of these various organisations can be found on the Saferspaces website. An especially relevant such organisation is the Survivor Support Unit at UCT’s Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC). They also have an Instagram page, @uct_oic, where they advertise their events and share resources.

It can take victims a long time to recover from a traumatic experience like IPV. Worrying about what society thinks about you having been in that situation does not make the process any easier. Seeing victims as the survivors they truly are is the first step to supporting them, helping them recover, and letting them know that what they experienced does not make them weak.

If you or any UCT student you know has experienced sexual assault or gender-based violence, please contact the Office for Inclusivity & Change (OIC) for assistance: 021 650 3530 (office hours)/ 072 393 7824 (24/7 hotline).

For telephonic counselling, please call Rape Crisis: 021 447 9762 or the SADAG UCT Student Careline: 0800 24 25 26 (or SMS 31393 for a callback).

Final year BSocSci student majoring in Social Development and Politics & Governance| Liker of wholesome content| Optimistic| Finding comfort in failing and getting back up again because it's not over until it's over| Aspiring to be a versatile writer.
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